Head’s tales

Dame Sally Coates on how strong schools begin with strong leaders

I called my recent book ‘Headstrong’ because it’s my belief that a school is only as strong as its headteacher. The book I would like to write would be a foolproof blueprint for school success which could be replicated in any school in the world. The fact that no such book exists is an indication of the importance of context in school leadership, and the challenge that leaders face in adapting their approach to their own school. In my career as a headteacher I learnt to identify my strengths and play to them for all they were worth. And so it was that the corridors of Sacred Heart in Camberwell and Burlington Danes in White City were gradually filled with the energy, drive, high expectations and competitive edge that people associate with me.

Leadership involves being authentic, but that’s not the same as simply being yourself. It involves finding synergy between your personality and the needs of your school. At Burlington Danes my competitive drive found favour in a school where student achievement lacked status. My can-do spirit injected much needed optimism into a school which had come to accept as normal the low expectations that had crept in and calcified.

So a strong leader combines strong self-awareness with a deep knowledge of their organisational context. This local context is a complex animal, made up of the history of the school (both recent and more distant), the culture of the staff room, the values of the playground, the demography of the local area, the strengths and weaknesses of the staff, the interests of the students, the facilities and resources, the quality of other schools in the area, recent exam results, local job prospects, the governing body. Headteachers must account for all these factors when they take on the mantle of school leadership, then constantly review them in order to pull the appropriate levers and flick the required switches.

My message to those considering headship would be that you can be a headteacher and sleep at night. Stress is often caused by a sense of powerlessness, yet as a headteacher you have more opportunity than anyone else in the school to change things. Yes, schools are placed under great pressure these days, but anyone who has successfully won control of their class and then their year group, or their department, will be able to transfer these skills to school leadership. I would advocate expanding the use of executive heads who might oversee several schools, with a designated associate head working within each school. This gives the associate head a taste of leadership with the security of an experienced head above them. People worry about being up to the task of headship, but it’s easy to forget that the role itself confers plenty of authority on the holder: when you become a headteacher you become a headteacher!

Visibility is paramount in school leadership. To really affect change you do have to be out on the corridors, developing relationships with key stakeholders, modelling the high expectations you seek to enforce, assessing the mood in the staff room, checking that systems are being implemented as intended. When a head walks around the school they should carry with them at least a pinch of gravitas. I worked with one head who was a shadowy figure. He crept into classrooms anonymously, slinking around in the manner of a humble butler wishing to clear the plates from his master’s banquet without disturbing the guests. I expect students to stand up when I enter their classroom, not for the sake of pomposity but because I’m the headteacher, and it’s a role that needs to command respect for the school to function.

In short: know yourself, know your school, and be the best possible version of yourself every day.

Dame Sally Coates’ book Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership is out now. Published by John Catt Educational Ltd, buy it online at www.johncattbookshop.com

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